"You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are."
Said D.A. Carson at the recent THINK conference at my church. The conference was entitled: The Weeping Prophet: Jeremiah Confronts the 21st Century. His point, I think, was that it matters what you think about! Because it becomes who you are. What does your mind first go to at a red light? If it goes to the restaurant you are going to that night, you might be a foodie. If it goes to the movie you just saw, you might be an entertainment junkie. If it goes to God and His Word, you might be a dependent sinner drawn to the grace of God. Do you see? This is not an ultimate criteria, but helpful in taking your pulse. I am often thinking about new restaurants to go to, and may even be labeled a foodie. But that is not all I think about! What follows here are highlights from this conference, given to me by the Holy Spirit in a merciful evening of rest and clarity following the last session. I hope that these points can be powerful and applicable regardless of your attendance or attentiveness at the actual conference.
THE BIBLE IS ALIVE
By alive, I mean living, and active. How can a book be living? Are we talking about like the Monster Book of Monsters from Harry Potter, the one once you open tries to chomp on your fingers, destroying the pages of itself in the process? No, no. We need better mental pictures than what movies and culture can give us. How can a book be alive? It can be so by its ability to feed your soul, on the spot, without limit, day after day and hour after hour. You can't see your soul. A doctor is not going to be able to locate it for you, and sadly, he or she is not going to be able to diagnosis when it is hungry. But you know you have it, and it needs nourishment. What kind of attention are we giving to this need? We have hungry souls! What amount of time are we dedicating to address this hunger?
T. De Witt Talmage said, "I know that young doctors, young lawyers, young accountants, young mechanics, young merchants, have but little time for general reading. If so, then spend more of that time at the fountain of divine truth from which nearly all the books have been dipped that are worth anything."
Yes! But oh, how I struggle with this. Between the free subscriptions I have randomly received to the New York Times, The Economist, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., paid ones to Harvard Business Review, Christianity Today, and then general reading in books (which I so enjoy) and blogs, all in the midst of marriage, family, work, church, and leisure, how am I going to spend necessary time in the fountain of divine truth? Carefully and intentionally, God-willing, because it is the most important thing I could be doing. But there is so much to read! Many, perhaps, do not consider this the dilemma that I do, or don't even notice the amount to be read. It has helped me to make a reading list, but even that could be improved. Tony Reinke in his book Lit! has helped me realize I can read multiple books at once, and should always be reading fiction. C.S. Lewis is famous for highlighting the importance of reading the old books, in his introduction to Athanaisus's On The Incarnation. Rick Warren has said that of the books you choose to read, you should read 25% from the first 1500 years of church history, 25% from the last 500 years, 25% from the last 100 years, and 25% from the last 10 years. Someone, though I can't remember whom, said that if you love to read you need to acknowledge the fact that you will never read everything you want to read, and that shouldn't be depressing but liberating.
Yet, all of this helps only with the reading that should be secondary, by a mile. Carson said, "There is nothing more tragic and damning than the refusal to listen attentively, faithfully, and obediently to the Word of God." How am I going to do this if I am spending the majority of my limited time to read on current events, business strategy, and man-spoken books?? Do I not realize what I am reading when I open the Bible?!
Walter Maier, in The Lutheran Hour, says, "This is Christ's Word, the entire Scripture, composed by almost half a hundred writers, completed in fifteen long centuries, written under the most varied circumstances - this vision on the seashore of a lonely exile, this letter in the confines of a martyr's prison, this history on a caravan wearily jogging its way across the desert, this psalm under the starlit heavens of Judah, this song in the captivity of far-off Babylon - a book to which many men and many countries and many centuries have contributed, but which, from the creation of Genesis to the beautified visions of paradise in the Apocalypse, is pervaded with a marvelous unity, the dominating message of sin and grace, the assurance of a loving Father's gracious redemption of His children."
Carson also highlighted Deuteronomy 17:14 and following, and the laws concerning Israel's Kings, whereby they were required to copy out the Book of the Law by hand. They were not able to "download it from the cloud without the words passing through anyone's brains". How far is this from our approach to Scripture!
"A voice says, 'Cry'! And I said, 'What shall I cry?' All flesh is like grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." - Isaiah 40:6-8
The Word of our God will stand forever.
HEALING WOUNDS LIGHTLY
"Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed. Have you not just now called to me, 'My father, you are the friend of my youth - will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?' Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could." - Jeremiah 3:3-5
"They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD." - Jeremiah 6:14-15
God is very serious about healing. He is serious about the sin that requires it, and the method and completeness by which it comes. God forbid that we would heal each other's wounds lightly, that we would minimize, cover-up, or too quickly move on from the wounds that our sin causes. God forbid that we would ultimately die because of our worldly grief, rather than being grieved into repenting, which leads to salvation, and without regret! God forbid that we would withhold or shrink the whole counsel of God in order to be accepted or unoffensive!
This is important for evangelism. John Wesley in his Letter on Preaching Christ, talked about this in the context of preaching more law until someone was fully convinced of their sin. That could be a while, you know? George Whitefield, perhaps more strongly, emphasized this in his remarkable sermon The Method of Grace:
"Before you can speak peace to your hearts, you must be made to see, made to feel, made to weep over, made to bewail, your actual transgressions against the law of God....But further: you must be convinced of your actual sins, so as to be made to tremble, and yet you may be strangers to Jesus Christ, you may have no true work of grace upon your hearts."
More than that, conviction must go deeper, he says, to an acknowledgement of the foundation of all your sins, namely, your original sin. Then! he says, "You must not only be troubled for the sins of your life, the sin of your nature, but likewise for the sins of your best duties and performances." But then! he continues, "Before you can speak peace to your heart, you must be troubled for the unbelief of your heart." He is still not finished unlayering the conviction we need to heal our wounds completely. "Once more then: before you can speak peace to your heart...you must be enabled to lay hold upon the perfect righteousness, the all-sufficient righteousness, of the Lord Jesus Christ."
That is a lot of layers! We are in significant danger of healing others' wounds lightly, and our own. This is also important for daily Christian living. I remember reading John Owen years ago and lingering over his exhortation to "not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it, but hearken to what God says to your soul." I don't think I ever understood completely what this meant until reading Jeremiah, the inspired Word of God that is the food for my soul. How could I understand this apart from the Bible? How could I hearken what God says to my soul by reading John Owen? No offense to a mighty saint of God. That would be like eating a newspaper article about food rather than eating the food itself. Owen says that our peace must be "attended with the detestation and abhorrency of that sin which was the wound and caused the disquietment." But those are big words.
Don't get me wrong, Carson, Wesley, Whitefield, and Owen are all very helpful here. But listen to the Word of our God through the apostle Paul, written to the Corinthian church a second time after calling out in them significant sin (so applicable to us):
"As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death."
How do we know we have godly grief?
"For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment!" The NIV says, what "readiness to see justice done."
We know we have godly grief when we have earnestness, eagerness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, and readiness to see justice done, which is ultimately about powerfully and authentically leaning into Jesus who is the just and the justifier. What a valuable lesson I need repeated to me every day! Don't heal your wounds or others' wounds lightly!
A good reminder in this effort is that the Bible is not about us. The world does not revolve around us. Seriously. Reading the Old Testament reveals acutely my focus on self. Just like the people of Israel. Just like those whom Jesus was addressing that were worried about food and clothing. I really do worry about food and clothing daily. That wasn't just a parable, you know? And I worry about a lot of other things. Reading the Old Testament also reminds me that God is a God of self-focus, so I certainly shouldn't be, because I am not God. He wants it and He deserves it. Carson said, "It is an act of great kindness and mercy that God demands Himself at the center, because it is for our improvement, not His."
I am what I think. I think, therefore I am, the philosopher says. One thing about the Bible is that it includes so much actual content to be thinking about. Narratives, poetry, theology, exhortation, imperatives, and so on. Silly of me to open the Bible every morning, pray over it, consider how to specifically apply it that very day, and then move on to other things in my mind.
My morning usually consists of making coffee, waking up my sleeping beauty, and then drinking that coffee as I read and pray and think. Then, usually, nature calls because of the coffee, and from there I shower and get ready, and drive to work. The time in the bathroom, the shower, and the car on the way to work is crucial thinking time for me. It can consist of 45 minutes to an hour in total. I'm just being real. What do I think about?
There is not an exact formula here, but I have noticed when I lose control of my mind during this time period, not taking my thoughts captive to God, things of God, and things in His word, my whole day can be affected. This does not always mean thinking about Jeremiah and the Babylonians, say. In some cases it the best days where I am thinking about work and meetings or tasks in front me during this time, if I do so without worry but with eagerness and motivation. The worst days are when I think about this same content but do so laden with anxiety. I don't want to go to that meeting. I don't want to finish that project, and open the can of worms connected to it. Etc. See, taking your thoughts captive I don't think means only thinking specifically about what you read that morning. It could! But if the Spirit of God dwells in us, than we should be able to live with the truth of His Word in us even as we do normal things. So the challenge for me is to determine whether I am thinking normal, necessary things within the context of the truths of Scripture that govern everything. Or have I moved on from God for the day and am only thinking about the normal things? How do I know the difference? How do I know if I've moved on? One way I know is if I'm anxious instead of eager towards my day at work. Or if I'm irritable. Or if I'm adverse to being around people until I've "woken up". And so on. Do you see?
Rick Warren, in an otherwise excellent sermon called "The Battle for Your Mind" said that as a church we are teaching people too much. We are giving so much content and application that they can't be expected to process it all and have it lead to life change. Between the Sunday morning sermon, a Bible study, a weeknight class, and morning Bible reading, the amount of applications a normal Christian is grappling with is overwhelming, Warren implies.
I disagree. In my experience it takes hundreds of pages, hundreds of truth statements, hundreds of applications, for one or two life-transforming gospel truths to stick. If it were not for the amount of content, I don't think I would discern the few ground breaking truths or applications that lead to actual life transformation and mind renewal. Maybe that is just me. But when I think about the wisdom from the Spirit and the mind of Christ, spoken of in 1 Corinthians 2, I am confronted with infinite knowledge and omniscience. I don't think the way God speaks to us through His word is by focusing on one miniature truth or application this week, and then another one next week. I believe He speaks to us through a hearty sermon on Romans 8 one week, and then an equally hearty message from Romans 9 the next week, with other study, meditation, and community discussion in between. As we drink from a fire hose of God's word through a given week, it is better to say at the end, "Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom of the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" Instead of merely, "this week I will try to think about God more on my lunch breaks."
Because, in my experience at least, God will give amazing practical application and specific mind renewing truth in the midst of your posture of dependence and awe at the depth of His knowledge and being. Even if only one sermon out of twelve has something you will remember in a year. Or one bible study out of twenty gives you a lasting spiritual nugget. You are not going to just get lucky and happen to listen to that one sermon that had the memorable point, or just randomly show up the night the bible study was really awesome. We have to have our minds open and hearts broken and ears ready during all the overflow of content, so that God can bless us with His presence and His truth in His timing.
I made a list the other day of 10 truths or application points (I'm sure I could come up with a few more with time) that I could explain as turning points in my walk with Christ. This is in more than 10 years of being a Christian. These are things that I know I will remember for my entire life, and without them I would not have the assurance, maturity, clarity, faith, or abiding union with Christ that I do today. And do you know how many sermons I've heard and books I've read and studies I've been a part of in that time?! I am so excited to put myself in the path of God's unsearchable knowledge day in and day out, and week in and week out, so that I can have maybe another dozen of these kinds of truths or application points at the end of my natural life.
"Do not be conformed, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
This type of transformation through this type of mind renewal, requires enduring more content and Biblical truth about the omniscient God of the Universe from sermons, books, Bible studies, and spiritual conversation, than our feeble brains could ever possibly handle, so that a few life-altering truths get through.
What do you think?